November 19, 2016


The Kiwi kings : The current All Blacks are the most dominant rugby side ever. Why? (The Economist, Nov 18th 2016)

So how can we tell that New Zealand's 2016 vintage was the strongest ever? The most reliable measure of team quality comes from Rugby Vision, a predictive model assembled by Niven Winchester, an economist at MIT who also researches rugby probabilities. The system forecasts the results and margins of victory for all major international and most domestic matches. Had you used the model to place $100 spread bets on the scores of each of the 48 games at last year's World Cup, you would have earned a tidy profit of $548 (or 11.4%).

Mr Winchester's predictions are based on team ratings, which are constructed by exchanging points between opponents after a match. Conquering a strong rival means that you gain a large number of their ratings points: Ireland took 1.68 of them from New Zealand in Chicago. Beating a weak team, however, will earn you little. The All Blacks collected no ratings boost at all for their 68-10 thrashing of lowly Italy on November 12th, and actually lost 0.16 points when they edged past Wales by 36-22 on June 18th, a smaller margin of victory than the model expected.

Rugby Vision's system therefore rewards sides that consistently best high-quality opposition, while remaining unimpressed by those that beat up on weaklings. Crucially, the model provides historical probabilities of match outcomes. Mr Winchester has fed into his algorithm the result of every single international fixture since the second world war between teams from "tier one"-- Argentina, Australia, England, France, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa and Wales. This can tell us what chances any given team would have of beating the All Blacks at a neutral venue at any point since 1950 (the model uses five years of training data, and accounts for home-field advantage).

The result is that, before this month's batch of Autumn Internationals, the Kiwis were further ahead of their rivals than any other side in history (see chart). Their closest challenger, England, would have had just a 14.9% chance of vanquishing them. If you take the average probability of victory against New Zealand for South Africa, Australia, France and England--the only nations to have beaten them at least five times, and the only other teams to have appeared in a World Cup final--then that number stood at 10.1% at the start of November. Both measurements were the lowest ever seen.

The making of an All Black: how New Zealand sustains its rugby dynasty : A country of just four million is home to arguably the most dominant team in sport. But how do the All Blacks remain at the pinnacle more than 100 years after the 'Originals' established their supremacy? (Andy Bull, 11 September 2015, The Guardian)

Ponsonby was once a run-down neighbourhood, populated largely by Pacific islanders who moved here after the second world war. Then developers came and the demographics changed. A lot of those same families have sold up and moved on. Ponsonby RFC are still here, though, the oldest and most successful rugby club in Auckland. Just like Auckland grammar they are proud of their record of producing All Blacks. They boast 52, putting them equal first among the 520 clubs in the country. Added to that, another 29 men have played Test rugby for Samoa.

Ponsonby play at the Western Springs speedway stadium, their main pitch in the centre of the track, surrounded by steep grass banks on two sides. They run 56 junior and 12 senior teams. This Saturday there are three games on. Two junior matches, though you would never know it from the size of the players. The props must weigh 16 stone apiece. When those matches are over, the players gather around the main pitch to watch the seniors play Pakuranga.

Rieko Ioane is easy to spot. He's in the centre, moving with speed and power that make him just a little sharper than everyone around him. He scores two tries.

Ioane's father played for Samoa, his mother for New Zealand, and his elder brother, Akira, is with the Auckland Blues. At Ponsonby, Mum is the junior administrator and Dad helps manage the seniors.

Earlier in the season Ioane was playing for New Zealand sevens in London. He flew home on the Wednesday, trained on the Thursday, played in a crucial match for Ponsonby on the Saturday. And scored three tries.

After the match everyone gathers in the little clubhouse. There is a bar at one end and an astonishing collection of memorabilia at the other. Among it, sacred relics from the 1905 tour. The Originals' skipper, Dave Gallaher, was a Ponsonby man. Today, France and New Zealand play for the Gallaher Trophy. A 1905 jersey belonging to another player, George Nicholson, is in a glass case. One like it recently sold at auction for £22,000. Ioane and the other Ponsonby players grow up surrounded by this history.

Ponsonby's club ambassador is Bryan Williams. He's here almost every weekend. Williams played 38 Tests for the All Blacks in the 1970s. That was the era of dawn raids, when the government cracked down on "over-stayers", evicting Polynesian families who had been in the country longer than their visas allowed. Williams was one of the very first of Polynesian descent to play for New Zealand and his first tour was to South Africa, of all places. The apartheid government there granted him what it called "honorary white status". Otherwise he would not have been allowed to play.

Bryan Williams, a club ambassador for Ponsonby RFC, played 38 Tests for New Zealand and was one of the very first of Polynesian descent to do so. He is pictured in the clubhouse, which contains photos of old Ponsonby players who played for the All Blacks and George Nicholson's 1905 jersey from 'the Originals', the first team to be called All Blacks, displayed at Ponsonby RFC. Photograph: Scott McAulay for the Guardian

"I was 19 years old, so you can imagine how much anxiety and trepidation I felt," Williams says. "I actually suffered a panic attack when the plane touched down. Suddenly it all hit me and I just thought: 'I can't go through with this, I don't want to get off the plane.' I just sat there, stunned."

His team-mates dragged him from his seat. "I took it one step after another, and suddenly an hour has gone by, then a day, and suddenly you are pulling on a jersey getting ready to play." He was a sensation. Scored 14 tries in 13 games on the tour. "It was hugely satisfying."

Williams's success helped changed attitudes towards Polynesian islanders in New Zealand. "Because I was the first of the modern breed to not only make the All Blacks but stay in there for some time. And what started as a trickle became a flood. I was followed by lots of young Polynesians, second, third generation, people brought up here in New Zealand." Plenty of them are alongside him on Ponsonby's honours board: Joe Stanley, Olo Brown, Va'aiga Tuigamala, Junior Tonu'u. "That rich mix is one factor in New Zealand's success," Williams says.

"When I was growing up in the 1960s we had a great team but we were very conservative in the way we played. They were unbeatable but they weren't renowned for exciting rugby. They were renowned for winning. With the Polynesian influence our rugby has become more adventurous. The Polynesian boys like to throw it around, and step, and laugh and joke." Ponsonby retains that strong Polynesian character today.

Club rugby is not what it was in Williams's playing days. It has been superseded by Super Rugby above and school rugby below. "It is hard to make ends meet," Williams says. "Financially, it is a hard road to hoe." A lot of clubs are dependent on money generated by the gambling industry, which is funnelled back into the community.

Ponsonby are not rich but they are tight-knit. "We're a volunteer operation. We're about coming together, having fun, bringing up kids, setting standards." Because of the area's property boom, they have more new players now than ever.

On registration days at Ponsonby, when parents bring their children to sign up, the queues stretch out the door and down the road. "There are just heaps and heaps of kids," Williams says. Among them, his own grandson, Gianni. "He's four and a half, and he doesn't know which end of the field he is meant to run to. So recently I've been saying to him: 'Gianni, granddad's going to go and stand over there, and when you get the ball you run to granddad.'"

Posted by at November 19, 2016 3:02 PM